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A Vanderbilt University-based project seeks to understand what causes rare intellectual talent — and how to develop precocious ability into lasting accomplishment.

​In the 1970s, researchers administered the SAT to a group of 12-year-olds in order to identify 5,000 students with the highest scores. Researchers have followed their lives and careers ever since. The project, the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), recorded various milestones in subjects’ lives such as their educational attainment, their employment success, the articles they published, and the patents they earned.

Researchers found a striking correlation between the adolescents’ SAT scores and their academic, financial, and creative accomplishments later in life. For example, high math scores and relatively lower verbal scores were predictive of accomplishments in scientific and technical pursuits, while the inverse predicted accomplishments in the humanities and law. The researchers published major findings over the study’s first 35 years in a 2006 paper, one of many published during the longitudinal study.

But exceptional talent doesn’t always result in doctoral degrees or career success; exceptionally talented individuals sometimes fall far short of their potential. The SMPY researchers sought to understand why — and what could be done to increase the likelihood that raw intellectual talent would translate into accomplishment later in life.

Identifying and Nurturing Genius

The SMPY, launched in 1971, is now co-led by David Lubinski, professor of psychology, and his wife, Camilla Benbow, dean of Education and Human Development, both at Vanderbilt University. Through a $663,000 grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Lubinski and Benbow have been able to extend the study through summer 2018. The grant will allow the team to continue following the participants, now all at least 50 years old, and investigate the continuing arcs of their lives to look for connections between variables like intellect, personal passions, mentorship, educational opportunity, and success.

Putting Exceptional Talent into Action

The team’s research shows that while standardized scores are powerful predictors of success, raw intellectual talent isn’t the only relevant factor. In three separate studies — published in 2004, 2010, and 2013 — the researchers replicated findings that study participants who had received accelerated learning opportunities early in their educations, such as skipping grades or taking Advanced Placement courses, were more likely to achieve higher levels of achievement in their careers, to earn patents, and to publish significant research papers. “Both groups did fine, but getting their educational needs met early enabled them to do better,” Lubinski says.

Going forward Lubinski and Benbow intend to look at other factors that correlate with success, such as number of offspring or average number of hours worked per day.

There are many questions to ask, Lubinski says. “How are these people structuring their lives? Who do the eminently precocious men marry? Who do the eminently precocious women marry? How do kids factor in? Where do they work? How are their lifestyles structured? What do they require to have a meaningful life? We’re asking a lot. What we do know at this time is that the population we are studying has immense promise for becoming the innovators and intellectual leaders of tomorrow.”